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May 2013

Review: Headlong's Chimerica at the Almeida has a lot of fizz


The Lucy Kirkwood-written and Headlong Theatre produced Chimerica starts off with such energy that married with what is a startling set and a crackling, witty script it is was easy to get drawn into the story and spectacle.

In a series of shortish scenes, the central story is about photographer Joe Schofield's (Stephen Campbell Moore) search for the man he photographed standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square during the student protests in 1989.

Thematically it is about Chinese vs US culture, the economics of the two and their changing relationship.  It explores personal freedom, the role of the press and the influence of business and politics on the media - it is a three hour play after all drawing parallels and contrasts between the two nations. 

There is a love story thread between Joe and a British, consumer-profiler Tessa (Claudie Blakley) who is working for a US credit card company looking to make in roads in China, and a separate thread about Joe's Chinese friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong) who lost his young wife in the demonstrations.

The stories are played out on different sets within and around a huge cube which is frequently rotated to show new scenes. On the outer walls images are projected so that, for example, a plain white door becomes the entrance to New York apartments or a block of flats in Beijing. It is a fairly simple but clever and effective piece of staging.

But for all that, the initial energy does begin to fade  a little and although it has many good moments of drama, tension and laugh out loud humour it somehow never really fully recaptures the fizz and drive of the opening half an hour. There is a lot going on and certain story-lines worked better than others. There were some strange choices *plot spoiler* Zhang's wife haunting his fridge, for example, just seemed odd in the wider context.

It's clever staging and witty script feels sometimes a little encumbered by a slight bloated story. There aren't many plays that justify long running times and I know this one was edited down to three hours. Perhaps a bit of further pruning would just tighten it up and give it a depth that matched its cleverness and freshness in other areas.

Chimerica runs at the Almeida Theatre until 6 July and I was there as part of a blogger's night organised by the theatre. You can read Webcowgirl's review and @polyg saw it a few nights ago.

Behind the scenes at rehearsals for Amen Corner at the National Theatre

Second time in my life I've entered the National Theatre through the stage door. First time it was visiting an actor friend of friend in the green room.  This time I was whisked off, with a small group, through the labyrinthine corridors to a large rehearsal room to have a sneak peek at how the Rufus Norris-directed Amen Corner was coming along.

What we were treated to was the entire first act. The actors were in their civilian clothes except for the odd bit of costume - a choir gown, a bow tie or a hat, for example. There was a rough construction of the set, which is on two levels, with quite a few props and bits of furniture.

A trio of musicians sat in the corner providing musical accompaniment; there for the first time according to Norris who introduced the experience before retreating behind the production team's long tressle table which was cluttered with paper, drinks and snacks. (I heard somebody munching on a cracker during the performance but it was lunchtime).

James Baldwin's play is about Harlem preacher Sister Margaret (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) whose position is threatened as real life tests her devout principles. And what we saw of the production seemed very polished a week ahead of previews. A few forgotten lines were dealt with almost lyrically so that the pace and tone was never lost and it never jarred.

If this 45 minute slice is anything to go by then it certainly holds a lot of promise. The gospel singing is beautiful and I can't wait to hear the cast giving full voice when they are on the Olivier stage for previews next week. In the meantime it was a real treat to get this snippet and from such close proximity to the action.

Amen Corner runs at the National Theatre from 4 June until 14 August and you can see all the rehearsal pictures here. Below is video from the photo shoot with Marianne Jean-Baptiste.


A bit of Tanzi Libre and Southwark Playhouse's new space

Saw 30 minutes of Southwark Playhouse's inaugural production at their new venue last night. It wasn't a bad production, that had me ducking out but unfortunately cast injury.

The show, Tanzi Libre, is set in the world of wrestling with each scene a sort of mock bout so the injury isn't a massive surprise although nobody realised at the time that anything was awry. The actor is OK - I should add - taken to hospital as a precaution.

At first it just appeared that we were having an interval, although no one was entirely sure whether to leave their seats or not. Then the stage manager came out and told us what had happened.
That the actor concerned is OK is the most important thing.

What I saw of Tanzi Libre was certainly interesting and different. It was livel, with the audience, sat on four sides of a wrestling ring and encouraged to cheer, shout and boo. Although I'm not entirely convinced that telling someones life story through the medium of wrestling was going to work completely - the portrayal of baby Tanzi being pushed about by her mother was distressing even if it was entirely acted by adults - I still would have liked to have seen where it went.

So in lieu of the review I thought I'd write a bit about Southwark's new space, the theatre's home for probably the next five years while their old venue is redeveloped as part if major work at London Bridge.

It is much brighter and airier than their former under the arches home, no damp smell either. The bar area is full of the familiar mismatched chairs, tables and sofas with lots of little nooks and crannies - certainly a place that would be pleasant to meet for a drink.

Tanzi Libre is in the large performance space which is a nice size and bodes well for different seating configurations.

The rumbling of trains overhead that added so much atmosphere to the London Bridge venue is absent but the team at the Southwark Playhouse have succeeded in recreating the essence and vibe of their old venue. Looking forward to going back.

The Groundling experience at The Globe

I blame Colin Morgan, I wouldn't have gone back to The Globe otherwise. It's been such a long time since he was on stage and he was playing one of my favourite Shakespearean characters: Ariel.

So why 'groundling*'? Well after paying nearly 40 quid to sit on a hard bench too far back from the stage for my liking I decided it couldn't be any worse.

My ideal was to be leaning on the stage to ease the burden of standing but the Colin Morgan fans have more energy and enthusiasm for early queuing than I and although I got there 50 minutes before curtain up, I had two rows of people standing in front of me.

The advantage of being a groundling is that you are sometimes in the midst of the action as the actors not so much break the fourth wall as leap through it and down into the audience. You are also closer to the stage than the seats will ever get you at The Globe so you do get to see the sweat on the actors brow sometimes.

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Review: Public Enemy, Young Vic

Public_Enemy326Had Henrik Ibsen been alive today, Public Enemy would be a play fostered by the Royal Court's international writers programme and would probably be debuting at the Jerwood upstairs. There is a certain irony to the fact that the themes he explores are as pertinent today as they were when they were written in 1882 - is there any change in progress?

In Public Enemy - a version by David Harrower with the title changed from Ibsen's Enemy of the People - Dr Stockman discovers that his beloved home town's money-spinning spa is in fact toxic. He thinks people will be grateful of his discovery and initially has support from the local businesses and newspaper but when they realise that exposure of the problem will destroy the cash cow, for a couple of years at least until expensive repairs are made, their support wains.

It is on one level a deeply political play. The Mayor and the council rushed through the spa development putting short term economic gain ahead of longer term moral duty. It is democracy that leans heavily toward an oligarchy with undue influence and power.

On the other it is about one man's fight to expose the truth but in doing so risks his family and livelihood. An idealist he slowly becomes obsessed and disillusioned, fixated on his rights as an individual resorting to political and philosophical rants.

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Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw talk Peter and Alice at Q&A

8718870206_c6a7699968_nYou never know which of the cast is going to turn up for a post performance Q&A so it was such a treat to get Dame Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw and Peter & Alice director Michael Grandage at the What's on Stage event. MG kicked off proceedings while the cast were getting out of costume:

How did Peter and Alice come about?

Met John Logan (who wrote Peter and Alice) while working at the Donmar. JL had wanted to write something for that space and Red arrived perfectly formed. MG said he and the writer had a common bond, had a good collaborative working relationship and good friendship. Logan had suggested Peter and Alice while Grandage was winding down as artistic director at the Donmar. He went to Dame Judi with whom he had worked before and she was enchanted by it. Then went to Ben and he liked it "So I got my first choices".

Will he throw his hat into the arena for Nicholas Hytner's job at the National Theatre?

"Flattered to think my name has been mentioned in relation to National Theatre" but doesn't want to run a building again as he's done it before and said there are plenty of talented people out there.

Cast arrive, Dame Judi is drinking champagne and Ben Whishaw red wine both seem relaxed laughing and joking throughout.

Why did you take the part?

BW said he was very moved  by the story. He'd had no idea about the real story behind the famous children's story and was shocked by the tragedy of it. He had an emotional reaction to it.
DJ "Michael Grandage read it to me and read it far too well and I said yes straight away." In 1960 she had been living in Eton Terrace and Sloane Square was her local tube so she remembered the death of Peter Llewelyn Davies [he jumped in front of a train at the station].


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Review: The Tempest with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan

Roger-Allan-and-Colin-Mor-010May have mentioned in the past that I don't like The Globe and had vowed never to see anything there again. Well, that was until Colin Morgan was cast as Ariel.

I've followed Colin's career since he played Vernon in Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, fresh out of drama school and long before he became the BBC's Saturday night wizard. Said role having taken up most of his time for the last five years, stage work has been a bit thin on the ground, hence breaking my vow.

So was it worth it? Well, I'm going to write separately about the whole Globe and 'first time as a groundling' experience so this is purely about the play. And the first thing to say is that although it is not without its flaws it's probably the most rounded Tempest I've seen - and I'm quite picky, as it is a favourite play.

For me it worked because Roger Allam's Prospero had the right mix of powerful deposed Duke and Dad and Miranda (Jessie Buckley) wasn't too childish or too worldly. In fact she had a nice dose of teenager about her which Prospero's played to. There was a certain amount of charm to their relationship that made it endearing. Throw into the mix a slightly awkward teen Ferdinand (Joshua James) and the young lovers became quite amusing rather than sickly or, as I've sometimes seen, unbelievable.

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Review: Simon Russell Beale and John Simm in The Hothouse, Trafalgar Studios

HOT-035-GenericHorizo37AE1It is not the poster boys - Simon Russell Beale and John Simm - who are the scene-stealers in Jamie Lloyd's second play in his Trafalgar Studios season, it is Harry Melling and John Heffernan.

Neither gets masses of stage time in the first half but they both have long speeches delivered in such a way that I was expecting the audience to burst into applause.

Harold Pinter's Hothouse is a black, kafka-esque, absurdist comedy delivered under Lloyd's direction at such a rapid pace that afterwards Poly appropriately described it as a 'de-railed train. But in a good way'.

It is at times farcical but with a distinctly dark edge. It is set on Christmas Day in an institution of indeterminate purpose. We know there are inmates or patients who are given numbers rather than names. We know there is a defined hierarchy of staff and under-staff and that the head of the institution is a former Colonel who is known mainly as 'Sir' or occasionally 'Roote' (SRB).

There is a rotten core to the institution. It is OK to sleep with patients as long you take precautions and file a report. And there are experiments in interrogation as one member of staff finds out.

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Review: The rib-tickling Play That Goes Wrong, Trafalgar Studios 2

1097-4798-img_0247The Trafalgar Studios 2 is becoming the go-to West End theatre for transfers from pub and small fringe venues. The latest, from the Old Red Lion Pub Theatre, is a short but superbly rib ticklish farce: The Play That Goes Wrong.

As the title suggests it's about a play that has a few problems. A polytechnic drama society is putting on a murder mystery and it is deliciously badly done and cock-up riddled. There are all the usual bad acting habits together with forgetten lines, repeated lines, wrong entrances, wrong exits, missing props or props breaking or malfunctioning, farce staples involving a door and various injuries inadvertently sustained.

And it is a real rib tickler - not quite as howling-with-laughter funny as the man sat behind me seemed to think but it definitely packs in plenty of laughs. Towards the end it gets a little bit chaotic so that the plot twists of the whodunit, play-within-the-play are lost but it doesn't matter too much. Some of the gags start to become a little over stretched but at an hours running time it doesn't outstay it welcome. In fact, I think it was the perfect length for a farce.

If you fancy a laugh for an hour pop along to the Trafalgar Studios 2 between now and May 18. There are two performances every night and matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays.

Stan recommends:

Orpheus, BAC

The Weir, Donmar Warehouse

Othello, National Theatre

The Winslow Boy, Old Vic

The Low Road, Royal Court

Before the Party, Almeida Theatre 


Wasn't sure I'd get one for this but it turns out that Henry Lewis who plays Robert was in Mercury Fur with Olly Alexander who is currently in Peter and Alice with Mr W and has previously acted with him in Bright Star.



Review: The joyous pleasure that is Orpheus at BAC

Orpheus_Artwork_A5_Front-draft_viewConfess that I initially dismissed seeing Orpheus because it sounded too much like a musical. And it is, vaguely. However, recommendation by two people, whose opinions I value, led me to the Battersea Arts Centre last night and I'm so glad I went along.

Orpheus is a joyous pleasure that is virtually indescribable and nothing I write will do it the justice it deserves. Not even the trailer does it justice. Needless to say it is different from anything else you'll see around at the moment.

Set in 1933 Paris, Orpheus is a play within a play, a silent movie with opera, jazz and classical music and some talking. It is a mime show and a masque and a cabaret. It has prologue, epilogue and musical interludes. It has dancing and no fourth wall to speak of, indeed the audience is part of the story and the set. It is Greek tragedy with Django Reinhardt, Edith Piaf and Paris chic, it is wry and witty, clever and fun.

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